Not everyone sees a similarity between cooking and surfing. But chef Raphael Lunetta does. At Santa Monica's perennially popular Jiraffe restaurant, Lunetta, 32, is close enough to the ocean to surf between lunch and dinner service. He goes out at least three times a week on one of his 11 surfboards. "When the surf is big," he says, "the vibe is like being in the kitchen at prime time--except that in the restaurant you're in chef's pants, not a wet suit, and people don't always call you 'dude.'"
Lunetta grew up in Venice, California, where kids surf almost as soon as they can stand. When he was 11, he met Josiah Citrin, who would become his partner and co-chef at Jiraffe. (Citrin is now chef-owner of Santa Monica's luxe new Melisse.) The pair would wake up at 5 A.M. and surf until they were starving. "Joe's mother was a caterer; if there were leftovers from one of her parties, we'd go to his house. If not, we'd make oatmeal at my dad's," Lunetta recalls. When they got bored with oatmeal, they would sell a few old records and head to Thomas's Coffee Shop for steak and eggs. "We were so young, we had no idea about tipping," says Lunetta. "They thought it was against the law to serve kids our age coffee," Citrin adds. Lunetta began cooking when he was a child, inspired by his father, who was a schoolteacher and a serious amateur cook: "Dad would make an awesome dinner, and later I'd make my own version. I used canned tuna fish in place of any fresh fish and cream of mushroom soup for the base of all my sauces." Luckily, the food he ate during visits to an aunt in southwestern France helped his tastes evolve.
After high school, Lunetta spent a year surfing in Hawaii and turned pro. But after two years on the circuit, he quit to become a chef: "It was the only job I could think of that would be as exciting as surfing." He started out at a Caribbean restaurant in Los Angeles, where the chef taught him to cook in return for surfing lessons. After a short stint in France, he returned to Los Angeles and worked for star chef Joachim Splichal. Then he opened Jacksons with Citrin in 1992. In 1996, the pair opened Jiraffe, and became two of FOOD & WINE's Best New Chefs in 1997.
Lunetta's surfing has actually influenced Jiraffe's rustic French-American menu. "I pick up ideas when I travel, and I travel to places with great waves," he says. Surf camp in Fiji inspired a yellowtail carpaccio with marinated white tuna and introduced him to coconut milk, which he now uses in a South Pacific-style fish soup. And one of Jiraffe's best-sellers, a grilled côtes de boeuf marinated in aged vinegar and sprinkled with sea salt, is based on a dish Lunetta and Citrin ate daily on a beach in the Basque region of France.
These days, Lunetta's favorite destination is Pipeline Beach on Oahu's North Shore. "It's the most famous break in the world, with awesome, powerful swells," enthuses Strider Wasilewski, a top professional surfer who rides waves up to 50 feet tall. Lunetta recently threw a blowout beach cookout at Pipeline for Wasilewski and some other surfer friends. "You want the food to be non-labor-intensive. And clean tasting; this isn't a rich, sauce-heavy menu," Lunetta says. Wasilewski agrees: "After surfing, it's all about grilled food." To that end, Lunetta lit a fire, threw in some coconut husks and seared tender curried chicken kebabs and jumbo shrimp to be served with a cayenne-laced basil emulsion. Endives sprinkled with a little salt and sugar roasted in foil in the coals.
Is Lunetta a better surfer or a chef? "He's great at both," Citrin says diplomatically. "I'd have to say, he's a better cook," Wasilewski adds, piling his plate with grilled shrimp and citrus-marinated scallop ceviche.